One of my favorite things growing up was reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales with my sister. Each night, we would choose a story to read. These were the real deal, not the Disneyfied, sanitized ones you may know from kiddie versions. A lot of these tales take dark twists and turns with murder, robbery, dismemberment, magic, cannibalism, deception, malevolence, and even incest! Often, women are the clever heroes who outwit beasts, abusive elders, and disguised trolls who wish them harm. Now that I’m an adult, I’ve been listening to a podcast that reviews individual Grimm’s Tales: Grimm Reading. This podcast takes a deeper look at individual tales, including tracing the source material, reviewing various versions, and understanding the different interpretations of these mythic tales.
In a recent episode, they reviewed a strange (and frankly not that great) tale called The Three Languages. In this tale, a young man’s father sends him to get an education, and all he learns are animal languages. The father condemns his son to death (harsh! this guy really valued a specific type of education!), but those sent to execute his son are unwilling, so they set him free and kill a deer instead. As one does. The young man decides to take a vacation to Rome (he’s from Switzerland), and when he gets there, the Pope has unexpectedly died, and they are trying to find a replacement, but they want a miraculous sign to make the decision for them. When he walks in, two doves land on his shoulders, so they make him Pope, even though he’s never done a mass in his life. I’ve cut out a lot of the story, but that’s the quick and dirty version. There’s some stuff in there about frogs predicting his future, and whatnot. You get the gist. I assume you know roughly how these stories work. This particular story sounds like some weird dream you might have where it starts out being about one thing and ends up being even weirder, and about something totally else.
In the podcast, they evaluate this story based on three different types of literary criticism:
- Historical. They evaluate the story in the context of other versions of the story, where and when they came from, and what elements came from different myths. Because the Grimms were compiling stories passed down through oral traditions, different versions were common. In terms of literal history, there has not been a Pope from Switzerland (although obviously, the Swiss Guard is a connection), so as a Pope origin story, it fails the literal history test (if you’re willing to concede learning animal languages). It does weave in elements of at least 3 different stories about Catholic historical figures, though, and these similarities are interesting to assess where the story came from. The podcast discussed these other sources with an expert from Pontifacts, a podcast that shares potentially irreverent episodes about papal history.
- Romantic. The Grimms brothers were compiling these stories in response to the Romantic movement in literature, which included a rejection of institutions (e.g. in this case, the Church) in favor of natural or even Pagan origins. In this story, the father is set on “traditional” education, but the son receives a more “natural” education (e.g. learning animal languages instead of Greek and Latin). The Church needs a new Pope, but is relying on the advice of animals to find one.
- Psychological. Because these stories are passed along through oral traditions, they speak to the human experience and reveal feelings about important life events that apply to all listeners and allow people to deal with various stresses in life. In this story, the separation from home that occurs when a person reaches adulthood is addressed, and no matter how bad you think you had it, this story is worse. If you’ve ever found it stressful to be in a new culture, as a tourist, or being given a new responsibility you don’t fully understand, imagine the stress of being made Pope when you don’t even know the script for the mass!
So, what does any of this have to do with the Book of Mormon? My immediate thought was that both the Grimms’ collection and the Book of Mormon emerged at a similar time in history. The Grimms began collecting these stories in the same year Joseph Smith was born, 1805. Their first edition was published seven years later on December 20, 1812. The Book of Mormon wasn’t published until 1830, but according to Joseph’s account, he was shown the plates as early as 1820, a mere 8 years after the publication of the first Grimms’ Fairy Tales. The Romanticism movement was still very much in force, and literary movements aren’t just for authors; they tell us about the era and culture of human history.
There is always resistance to any literary criticism applied to scripture, which I recognize. My first exposure to literary criticism of scripture was at BYU, in a Bible as Literature class. The Book of Mormon creates added complexity, however, because of its recency and the questions cast on its origin. If it’s deemed a 19th century work, many will use this as “proof” or at least evidence that Mormonism is false; therefore, discussing the literary climate of the 19th century as having any relevance immediately sets up red flags for some. Apologists often defuse these tensions by pointing to the 19th century scribes and “translators” as contributing, even unconsciously, to the product. Likewise, we could claim that it was written anciently but intended to appeal to a “modern” (at least 19th century) audience by its original authors. There’s always a way to address these types of concerns, so having said it, I will attempt to go where angels fear to tread, taking a brief look at the the Book of Mormon through the lens of these three forms of literary criticism.
To attempt this we need to understand similar literature or stories that emerged in this time frame, where they came from, how widespread their influence was, etc. There are different time frames to be considered: 1) 19th century literature, particularly American literature with Native American themes, and 2) ancient Hebrew literature, particularly from the time of 600 A.D. (generally the Bible is the preferred source, but scholars might cast a broader net, and 3) mythology and other writings of native peoples from the Americas, particularly those that may originate between 600 A.D. and 400 B.C.
The risk in this attempt is as old as the Book of Mormon itself; attempting this only as a method of proving or disproving the origins of the book. Lather, rinse, repeat, ad nauseum. No thanks.
It occurred to me, though, in listening to the tale The Three Languages, that if we assume that such an endeavor is impossible, looking for the cultural and mythological elements in the context of other stories from these people and places is worth doing for its own sake. The Book of Mormon is chock full of mythological story elements that are noteworthy, to name just a few:
- The Liahona, a magical item that gives direction to its possessor.
- Brothers, enduring sibling rivalry, killing a villain to get a family treasure.
- A supernatural being preventing brothers from beating their younger, smarter brother.
- A hero building a boat without knowing how to build a boat. (Nephi’s boat-building without foreknowledge is a type for Joseph building a religion without knowing how to build a religion).
- A sea journey made by a family to a new land.
Relevant stories and myths could be in ancient Americas, the middle east, or in other 18th and early 19th century American literature. That’s just a very brief starter list, but there are many of these elements that would be very comfortable in a Grimms story. If we view the text as simply a historical record of actual events (aka Nephi’s self-aggrandizing journal), there’s one level of insight to be gained. We are reduced to evaluating the events through the eyes of narrator Nephi or being skeptical about him as a narrator (or questioning the accuracy of his statements about what happened and the motives and actions of others). If we view the stories in the context of cultural mythologies, we see that there are many of the same themes that appear elsewhere in history.
While the Grimms brothers collected the stories told among German people, they also edited them based on their own interests and concerns, attempting to craft a message that would elevate and unite the common German people who were living under Napoleon.
Sex and violence are the major thematic concerns of tales in the Grimms’ collection, at least in their unedited form. However, it is more important to note that sex and violence in that body of stories frequently take the perverse form of incest and child abuse, for the nuclear family constitutes its most common subject. When it came to passages colored by sexual details or to plots based on Oedipal conflicts, Wilhelm Grimm exhibited extraordinary editorial zeal. Over the years, he systematically purged the collection of references to sexuality and masked depictions of incestuous desire. But lurid portrayals of child abuse, starvation, and exposure, like fastidious descriptions of /cruel punishments, on the whole escaped censorship. ‘The facts of life seemed to have been more disturbing to the Grimms than the harsh realities of everyday life’ (Tatar 10–11).
So, even though we can still see the vestiges of child abuse, incest, cannibalism, and so forth, we are still getting an edited version of the stories as they were being told. In making these edits, they became part author, part scribe of the stories as we know them.
One purpose of the Grimms’ compilation was to create a national identity and to extol the folk wisdom of the common people. This is a core aim of the Romantic movement. The Book of Mormon functions similarly for members of our faith. From an article on Romanticism:
Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were major participants in the Romantic Era and used the cultural movement as inspiration to collect fairytales. Romanticism gave the two an opportunity to take the tales of their culture and modernize the stories by editing the tales for the period. Romantics thought highly of country folk, seeing them as a great source of genius.
The Book of Mormon, like Grimms’ Fairy Tales, extols the common man’s virtues and wisdom, and is self-conscious in describing the flaws of its authors and contributors, pointing out repeatedly that they are just writing this the best they can. The existence of the Book of Mormon is also an example of taking a “lowly person” or one that is not educated in the traditional sense and elevating that person to the role of “wise person,” seer or prophet.
The book, and its existence, also take a crack at institutionalized religion. Lehi’s family leaves Jerusalem, the seat of religious power, and strikes out into the wilderness, living solely based on their own revelation and faith with no connection to their homeland or instructions from Church elders. Likewise, Joseph Smith strikes out on his own, rejecting the faith of his family members, and creates his own religion in the process, based in part on the Christian principles and scriptures he grew up with, but infusing it with wholly new religious ideas and doctrines.
The Book of Mormon is also critical of patriarchal family structures that existed in Jerusalem. While the culture of Lehi’s family would put Laman at the head as his successor, Nephi is instead favored by the Lord. The rejection of Laman as next head of the patriarchy results in all kinds of mischief down the line, but it is based on a core Romantic value, that systems and institutions are trumped by the natural world, the merits of those who are overlooked, and often, this hidden merit is revealed through magical (or miraculous in a religious sense) means. Additionally, the family rejects its city life with shelter and ease and basically embarks on a multi-year camping trip in the wilderness, leaving the structures and comforts of society for the pleasures and difficulties of the natural world.
This view of the Book of Mormon (for this purpose, easiest to stick with 1 Nephi) could rename the chapter The Pathos of Nephi. It can be a story about the difficulties of leaving one’s inheritance, everyone you know, and being on your own in a harsh world, fending for yourself. There’s a yearning to create a new world, one in which you are no longer tied to the traditions and institutions of the past.
There are also plenty of family squabbles to instruct the reader. The less deserving brothers who only follow their father reluctantly, the visionary father who throws it all away based on his ideas and feelings, the younger son supplanting his older brothers–there are psychological ideas in here about family duty, leadership, trust, and about following your own vision rather than your community’s.
Later stories in the Book of Mormon illustrate different psychological elements: temper and rash judgment (Captain Moroni), patience and leadership (Pahoran), political strife (the entire second half of the book), faith despite lazy religious practices (brother of Jared), trickery in warfare (you know where this stuff is), yearning for a religious experience, for the divine (Nephi, Enos, Alma, Joseph Smith himself).
From a psychological perspective, though, I don’t personally find the Book of Mormon to be very compelling. Too often, the main characters are very defensive of their own motives and the secondary characters often lack depth. For example, Sherem, Nehor and Korihor are not believable as people. Their motives don’t line up with their actions. They behave in ways that don’t make sense within the stories. They appear to be stock villains dreamed up by the self-appointed heroes of the story, a foil for their own goodness.
The dearth of female characters and perspectives also speaks volumes about the author(s) of the book. It’s largely as though women don’t exist in these stories except as an occasional matriarchal voice far off center stage, the loyal wife to a king, or a female servant who only exists to convert.
Personally, I find the Romanticism angle of the Book of Mormon to be a compelling perspective on the book. Its main themes line up nicely (as they do in the Bible as well, which is clearly not from that era). I’d like to know more about the mythological parallels with other relevant stories to be more intrigued by the historical view of it, but I don’t think we will ever hear that in a gospel doctrine class as it will cast doubt on the origin as a historical record (even attaching the word “myth” to a scripture story seems to raise hackles for some ward members). I would also be interested in more of a deep dive on the motives of the Book of Mormon characters in our gospel doctrine discussions (and far less on their relative merits, holding up some as paragons of virtue, and others as spiritual pariahs and villains).
What do you think?
- Do you find a literary view of scripture to be useful to its study? Why or why not?
- Do you see parallels with other stories? Which ones have you noticed?
- Do you find the psychological aspects of the Book of Mormon stories and characters compelling?